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Kind of Blue

Multi-talented songwriter Laurie Lewis makes music with an ear toward tradition. But she's not afraid to break rules.

For years, bluegrass was easily one of the most male-dominated musical genres around. All the biggest stars were men, and their bands were all made up of "boys." Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys, Jim & Jesse and the Virginia Boys -- you get the idea. Talk about boy bands.

Sure, there were a few token female members of the club, like accordionist Sally Ann Forrester and bassist Bessie Lee Mauldin, both of whom played for Bill Monroe. West Coast hillbilly singer Rose Maddox recorded a fine bluegrass album for Capitol, but that was a one-shot deal. Back in the early '60s, when earnest young college students discovered the joys of bluegrass, about the only women playing the festivals were Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. They, more than just about anyone else, made bluegrass safe for females.

These days, it's hard to imagine bluegrass without women. Alison Krauss is probably the most famous female performer, but others, like Rhonda Vincent and Claire Lynch, are doing highly regarded work. Earlier this year, country singer Patty Loveless showed her affinity for the high-lonesome sound on the wonderful Mountain Soul, and in recent years Dolly Parton has gotten in touch with her hillbilly roots.

Fiddler in the field: Laurie Lewis.
Fiddler in the field: Laurie Lewis.

Then there's Laurie Lewis, a dulcet-voiced singer from Berkeley, California. On her Web site, she calls herself a "singer, fiddler, guitarist, songwriter [and] river rat," which gives you some idea of her many talents. (She has also been a dancer and a violin maker.) She may not be a household name, but she's well-known in bluegrass circles. Indeed, she won the International Bluegrass Music Association's female vocalist of the year award in 1992 and 1994.

Bluegrass was her first love, but Lewis has also recorded a number of albums, most of them for the Rounder label, that aren't so easily categorized. One of them, 1998's Seeing Things, is best described as "contemporary folk" or "new acoustic." But her most recent disk, Laurie Lewis & Her Bluegrass Pals, is a spirited return to the music that first captivated her as a teenager.

"Of course, I've always loved bluegrass," she says from her home in California. "It's a music that's very near and dear to my heart. But I hadn't played in a bluegrass band, per se, since, maybe, the early '80s. And since then, I had just been doing all these different configurations. Seeing Things definitely had some songs on it that would never be called bluegrass." But, partly because she's always been known as a bluegrass singer, Lewis decided it was time to do an all-bluegrass album again.

Still, she hates being pigeonholed. "I'm hard to categorize, and it drives the record companies mad. But that's just the way I am." Some of her favorite singers are hard to classify. "I mean, look at Ray Charles. If he loves a song, he's just going to do it. And he makes it a Ray Charles song."

Lewis got hooked on roots music back in the '60s, when she had the good fortune to see legendary performers like Doc Watson, the Greenbriar Boys (another "boy" band!), Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis and Jean Ritchie at the Berkeley Folk Festival. About the same time, she went to a Byrds concert; the Dillards, a California bluegrass outfit led by banjo picker Doug Dillard, was the opening act.

"I thought they were the funniest," Lewis says. "They really appealed to a fourteen-year-old. I just loved them, and I wanted to play the banjo." Her father bought her the much-desired instrument, and she began taking lessons from a student at UC Berkeley. When her teacher went away for the summer, he left Lewis a box of bluegrass records, which she played over and over. The seed had been planted.

Eventually, Lewis dropped the banjo and switched to the fiddle -- she already played classical violin -- after figuring out how to play a waltz from her favorite album: Chubby Wise and the Rainbow Ranch Boys. (The legendary Wise played fiddle for both Bill Monroe and Hank Snow.) "I learned how to play the song for my sister's wedding," she says. "And that was when the floodgates really opened. I realized that I could listen to this music and play it, and I was pretty good right from the beginning, because I had this classical training. So then it was all over -- thanks to Chubby Wise!"

Lewis began entering fiddle contests at bluegrass festivals throughout California's central valley. "At some of them," she says, "there was some fairly decent prize money. You might win $50 or $100. One time, I won $300 at a contest. Plus, you'd get together with other musicians, and you'd have a great day of playing and visiting and hearing lots of great old-time fiddlers."

By the early '70s, Lewis was part of a thriving Bay Area music scene that was refreshingly non-sexist. "There were a lot of women playing bluegrass in the Bay Area," she says. "It just seemed like a completely natural thing. There were women singers, guitarists, mandolin players, fiddle players and bass players in all the bands in San Francisco. It just never occurred to me that it 'wasn't done.'"

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